Local authorities in Bulgaria were quick to adapt their work to deal with the COVID-19 emergency and support both citizens and companies. They were aided in their efforts by the business community, public servants, and thousands of volunteers, says Silvia Georgieva, the executive director of the National Association of Municipalities in Bulgaria. We spoke to Ms. Georgieva about Bulgarian municipalities’ response to the crisis and about the potential of public-private partnerships such as the United against COVID-19 Fund, which supported the work of 15 municipalities in the country with a donation of nearly 150,000 levs.
America for Bulgaria Foundation (ABF): The National Association of Municipalities in Bulgaria supports municipalities with expert assistance and represents their interests at the national and European levels. How did Bulgarian municipalities cope with this crisis, and what can we do to better prepare for the next one?
Silvia Georgieva (S.G.): Our organization is the family of Bulgarian municipalities, as all 265 municipalities are members of the association. We try to respond to their every need for expert assistance and give the widest publicity possible to municipal interests.
The crisis confronted municipalities, as well as all other systems, with the need to deal quickly with many new responsibilities, in addition to the usual ones. About 120 new services and responsibilities were added by the emergency provisions. However, municipalities managed to mobilize both their own resources and unprecedented volunteer support and did not discontinue any area of activity.
The first serious test was organizing disinfection activities in all public spaces: municipal buildings, public transportation, and administrative buildings. In a very short time, many municipal agencies learned new skills to ensure the correct and full implementation of the newly introduced anti-epidemic measures.
No less important was the care of disadvantaged individuals. Social distancing requirements led to a significant increase in the number of people cared for by municipal social services. Today, those who perceive these measures as “punishment” would be well served to learn how many elderly individuals are doomed to live in social isolation for the rest of their lives. Many villages in the country have three to ten inhabitants. They are cut off from health services, access to a pharmacy, social activities, communication. Many people, even those in densely populated apartment buildings, are deserted by their children and relatives, while others have relatives living abroad. The only people who took care and will continue to take care of the lonely, the poor, and those in quarantine are the employees of municipal social services. They visit them to offer assistance, make food deliveries, offer healthcare, provide cleaning services, etc. Social workers supply them with protective equipment and disinfectant and teach them minimum self-care skills. Thanks to the employees of social institutions and municipalities in Bulgaria, there are no forgotten people!
Almost all municipalities adopted special packages of measures to support business, which include exemption from paying rent on municipal property and fees for the use of marketplaces, sidewalks, squares, streets, and land allocated for other purposes.
Municipalities also had to adapt municipal hospitals to create conditions for the treatment of patients with COVID-19. Nearly 3,000 beds were added in 79 municipal hospitals, which means the addition of a ward, special ventilation, insulation, separate entrances and exits for staff and patients, an entrance for ambulances—almost a complete overhaul. Municipalities had to mobilize all reserves in their budgets. The support for municipal hospitals provided through the United against COVID-19 Fund was valuable not so much because of the amount but because the assistance was provided quickly, through clear and accessible procedures, allowing municipalities and healthcare facilities to meet urgent needs. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the socially responsible businesses in Bulgaria whose donations provided many of the missing equipment and supplies, especially for hospitals.
To respond to this emergency, all municipalities significantly expanded the range of electronic and remote services they offer. In practice, municipalities took a leap toward electronic governance. Municipal councils also readjusted their work to the digital environment. The association developed a proposal for urgent legal changes so that the work of municipal councils would not be disrupted and could be carried out remotely.
As an organization, we rearranged a significant part of our work meetings, and now both they and the meetings of the management board, as well as the meetings of the Bulgarian delegation to the European Committee of the Regions and expert discussions, are held mainly online. We had several online discussions on topical issues with the Minister of Education and Science, the Minister of Labor and Social Policy, the team of the Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works, and Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev, and even had online consultations with the leadership of parliamentary groups.
ABF: The coronavirus outbreak showed that local problems are best solved through local structures—because they know local communities and their needs best. What is your response to that?
S.G.: The fact is that very often mayors reacted more quickly in imposing certain restrictions than the central authorities did. Despite their limited resources, and powers in some cases, municipal crisis headquarters made their decisions expeditiously and responded flexibly, assessing the specific situation on the ground. Early in the state of emergency, the chairman of the management board of the association and mayor of Veliko Tarnovo, Mr. Daniel Panov, and Deputy Prime Minister Tomislav Donchev discussed the relationship between state institutions and their regional structures and local authorities. The meeting was also attended by Labor and Social Policy Minister Denitsa Sacheva, Health Minister Kiril Ananiev, the director of the General Directorate for Fire Safety and Protection, representatives of the Bulgarian Red Cross, and others. Prime Minister Boyko Borissov was also acquainted with the agreements reached, and this made it possible to overcome bureaucratic hurdles more easily in certain situations. One of the conclusions we draw after the first wave of the pandemic is that we have a lot of work to do in that direction.
As far as solutions to the serious financial problems faced by local authorities, we are also looking for options that will give municipalities more flexibility within existing budgets, with a clear understanding that the central government itself is experiencing financial difficulties. We received full support from the members of parliament, and the newly adopted legislative changes fully reflect our proposals.
The current crisis has once again shown the need for real decentralization in our country—a process in which the initiator of change continues to be the local government. We are convinced that the central government is beginning to understand why it is important to delegate certain functions to local institutions, but we are still confronted with its failure to understand that each delegated function also requires an appropriate financial transfer.
ABF: COVID-19 exposed shortcomings and needs but also generated an unprecedented amount of giving and volunteering among Bulgarians. What impressed you the most in the public reaction to the crisis?
S.G.: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the volunteers who readily came to the municipalities’ assistance. More than 4,000 volunteers in all municipalities made their time and abilities available. A special information platform with a database for volunteers was developed together with the National Crisis Task Force, representing a source of support for the government and municipalities to tap into in crisis situations.
Among the first to join the volunteers, in addition to doing their official duties, were mayors, deputy mayors, municipal employees, and, in many municipalities, municipal councilors. The mayor of Topolovgrad, Bozhin Bozhinov, was the first volunteer to respond to the appeal of the hospital in Yambol. There was an outbreak of the disease in a village in Gurkovo Municipality, and municipal employees made food and medicine deliveries to village residents for weeks using their own transportation and after working hours.
There were people from all walks—from artists, architects, lawyers, and IT specialists to the unemployed, retirees, and students. Among the volunteers were entire company teams that had stopped working, high school students along with their teachers getting a great lesson in empathy. Motorcycle clubs were very active; in Varna alone, there are 42 registered volunteers on motorcycles. In Pavlikeni and Strumyani, even foreign nationals living in Bulgaria came to the assistance of their new homes. The youngest were born in the early 21st century, and the most experienced ones in the middle of the previous century.
The crisis had a positive effect on people’s activism. In shuttered restaurants, people started preparing food for the needy, while hotels provided opportunities for recreation to frontline medics.
ABF: What do you think will be the role of public-private partnerships like the United against COVID-19 Fund in the future development of Bulgarian municipalities?
S.G.: Bulgarian municipalities received a lot of help from business. Early in the state of emergency, the 75 smallest municipalities received disinfectants from Plovdiv-based company Stroy Invest Group 2. Renault Nissan Bulgaria and its dealerships in the country provided more than 20 cars for the delivery of food, medicine, and disinfectants to people in need in Sofia, Smyadovo, Kazanlak, Montana, Gorna Oryahovitsa, Asenovgrad, Blagoevgrad, Dimitrovgrad, Gurkovo, Varna, and Stara Zagora. Rompetrol Bulgaria donated 10,500 liters of fuel in support of municipalities’ food and medicine deliveries.
This is only a small part of the donations of protective equipment, supplies, and disinfectants that the association committed to distributing. This was one of the tasks that we all partook in and that gave us great satisfaction. The letters of gratitude from the stricken municipalities are some of the most moving testaments to the meaning of humanity.
Almost all municipal hospitals were supported by donation campaigns. This inspired us to create an interactive map of municipal hospitals with detailed data about donation options and management contacts, which is available both on our website and on the government portal.
We are still cautious about the potential of public-private partnerships, probably because of the lack of clear procedures and mechanisms for ensuring transparency and public scrutiny. The fact is, for the first time in our country, the news media freely announced the names of individual and business donors.
Now, after the end of the state of emergency, it would be especially valuable for us to learn from the experience of the United against COVID-19 Fund, because in the future more and more activities of local and regional importance will have to be generated and managed in partnership between municipalities, businesses, civil associations, and research and development centers. The ability to rapidly attract considerable financial resources, which are effectively channeled to meaningful activities that directly affect people’s lives and help them deal with the crisis, and to develop and manage a mechanism for selecting and evaluating projects can be particularly useful for us as an organization and for many municipalities. In trying to demonstrate transparency, we usually complicate procedures and slow down processes. In a crisis, speed is a very important advantage, but it should never be at the expense of precision. Apart from my deepest gratitude for the support from the United against COVID-19 Fund for Bulgarian municipalities and sincere appreciation for the whole team and especially for the donors, I would like to express my hope, on behalf of the association that I represent, that we have yet to develop our cooperation in different, mutually beneficial directions.
The first such joint activity could be the management of our Municipal Solidarity Fund. It is designed to help municipalities deal with the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster or an industrial crisis, for example. Procedures for its operation are still under development, and the United against COVID-19 Fund model would be very useful in that regard.
ABF: Is there something that you would like to let the United Fund contributors know, particularly to encourage them to repeat the gesture?
S.G.: Success is not always measured by financial statement data. The social solidarity a company shows is the best measure of the social responsibility of its team, a sign of civic conscience. We sincerely hope that COVID-19 taught us to be a little more empathetic and awoke in us a sense of community. Entrepreneurial people and businesses are an integral part of our communities. Municipal administrations were the first to support local businesses with a number of relief measures and exemptions. I assure you that this is not just a “return of the gesture”—this is our clear belief that the fate of every company is as important to local government as the fate of every citizen.
My words of gratitude to donors will not be enough to express our deep appreciation for each and every one of them. Nobility is not gone, nor are knightly virtues. You are proof that nobility pulsates in the veins of the business community today.